Friday, November 11, 2011

Now I've Seen Everything Dept.: Clint Eastwood, Part 2

Clint Eastwood's latest film J.Edgar opens today. Here is the second part of a career retrospective.

Second Acts

Bird, Clint Eastwood's heart-felt biographic film of jazz-legend Charley Parker begins with the erstwhile Scott Fitzgerald quote: "There are no second acts in American lives." The life and career of Clint Eastwood belies that dubious observation—everyone gets a second act if they live long enough, something even Fitzgerald might have acknowledged if he had. And though one may quibble that Eastwood has stayed as a constant in "the entertainment industry," his gradual emergence from actor to star to director represents a shift from interpreter to genuine artist. Once Eastwood became "an actor of a certain...maturity" (always said in interviews with a rueful smile), the stunt-work of his action-star years were no longer possible and he would turn his attention to what was going on behind the camera. At the same time, the star of so many gritty shoot-'em-up's displayed a depth of thinking about the films of his past and their underlying themes that belied his tough-talking portrayals over the years. The Second Act of Eastwood's career would be spent re-appraising the first.

"Vanessa in the Garden" ("Amazing Stories", 1986) Episode of Spielberg's anthology series featuring performances by Harvey Keitel, Sondra Locke and Beau Bridges. The story (with a teleplay by Spielberg) features Keitel as a painter, deep in grief over the loss of his wife (Locke). Fearing that he'll lose her image forever in his mind, he paints an oil of her sitting in their garden...and discovers her sitting there, as a ghost, epehemeral and untouchable. He makes more and more paintings of Vanessa, everywhere in his house, making her appear everywhere he is. Soon, he has so many paintings that his agent (Bridges) suggests a gallery show, which the painter does not attend—he has painted a last painting of himself and Vanessa together, and has disappeared. Sweet, tender valentine of a piece (with a score by Georges Delerue) that moves at a somewhat glacial pace—as so many of the "Amazing Stories" episodes did—trying to stretch an idea fragment over an entire half-hour.

Heartbreak Ridge (1986) It's a bit hard to determine exactly what Eastwood was going for with this one. It might have been an attempt to make his version of a rollicking service comedy of the type perfected by John Ford. There are the slap-stick fist-fights, sure, but I doubt Ford would have envisioned Mario Van Peebles' hip-hop Marine (with...electric guitar?). It might be a somewhat straighter version of "Stripes," with its goof-ball Marines (this got the cooperation of the Marine Corps?*) and Eastwood is a "rebel" in the system. On the civilian front, Eastwood's Sgt. Tom Highway (get it?) is trying to win back his wife (Marsha Mason) by reading women's magazines to speak the lingo of the "sensitive male." It ends up with a fight during the invasion of Grenada, where Highway's methods save the day and the young recruits stand prepared to defend our country (God help us!) I hope the Corps got its recruiting numbers up during its release, but one wonders how many wash-outs it brought in. All around, a bad exercise that few should be proud of.

Bird(1988) Eastwood's love of jazz is evident in every frame and decibel of "Bird," his film about the short, turbulent career of Charley Parker. Eastwood and writer Joel Oliansky worked with Parker's common-law wife Chan fleshing out the screenplay and gaining access to a treasure trove of Parker recordings. Special attention was paid to the music: Parker's solos were isolated in recordings and new stereo arrangements were added to beef up the sound. Red Rodney (played by Michael Zelniker in the film) was still alive to play on the tracks and serves as the Parker student that Eastwood sees himself as. Forest Whitaker, who was only playing supporting roles at the time, infuses Parker with a roller-coaster energy that carries the film (garnering a Best Actor award at Cannes) and Diane Venora is brilliant as Parker's long-suffering wife. Jazz experts complain that not enough attention is paid to Parker's recording sessions—the only record of his playing, besides the live recordings—but that's a little "inside" and, frankly, recording sessions are boring. The drama is in Parker's life and, although revered for his music, didn't get any respect as a performer while he was alive, especially in club circles. That's the tragedy, beyond the story of prejudice that Parker endured. Eastwood won the Golden Globe for "Best Director" for "Bird."

White Hunter Black Heart(1990) "Bird" inspired Eastwood to set his sights higher, but it's poor box-office warned him that people wanted to see Eastwood the star and not the director. "White Hunter, Black Heart" allowed him to have it both ways—an interesting script by industry veterans and a part for him where he didn't have to be "Clint Eastwood." How much of the story is true is hard to say. But Peter Viertel's script, based on his roman à clef (and adapted with directors James Bridges and Burt Kennedy) of a director—not unlike John Huston—who goes to Africa to make a movie— not unlike "The African Queen"—who delays production and looking through his camera view-finder to accomplish his own personal goal of shooting and killing an elephant—the reason he wanted to make his picture in Africa in the first place. Huston was dead by this point, and his longevity might have been why the script hadn't been filmed yet. Eastwood made sure he had daughter Anjelica Huston's blessings before he took it on.

Eastwood himself plays "
John Wilson" with a fair approximation of Huston's smokey, honey-magnolia voice, and the loping way Huston would walk and talk while looking back at you. Nice effort, but you never completely lose the impression that it's Eastwood doing a Huston imitation (seventeen years before Daniel Day-Lewis got an Oscar for doing the same schtick in "There Will Be Blood"). It's a pretty damning film as the pre-occupied Wilson goes through the motions of movie-prep, while his writer questions his motives. Eastwood makes good use of Jeff Fahey as the Viertel character and impersonations of Bogart, Bacall and Katherine Hepburn. It's not the most engaging film, but as a commentary on "man's man machismo," it's notable. And it's fun to watch the approximations to the film-world counter-parts.

Life Magazine picture of Huston on location in Africa.

The Rookie (1990) Easily Eastwood's worst movie, but even then, it's interesting. Eastwood's police films set the mark for action back in the day, and was now seeing his genre usurped by the bloody "Lethal Weapon" movies of Richard Donner. So, "The Rookie" takes that formula—old cop, new cop—and does a graduation ceremony on it. Eastwood, who'd done so many of his own stunts—including the strenuous climbing of "The Eiger Sanction"—was getting a bit long in the tooth for the elaborate foot-work called for. So Eastwood's cranky Lt. Nick Pulovski spends substantial time tied up and kidnapped by the Latino smuggling operation led by Raul Julia and Sonia Bragashe's the best thing in it—and fresh cop Charlie Sheen has to do the heavy lifting, fighting and bleeding. Sheen had been aping the Eastwood persona since his debut in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off " and has the same skill at dead-pan comedy. There's no clash of styles at all. Eastwood probably made it just for the last scene, where his character gets to put his feet up on his desk and relax while the "new kid" hits the streets. Eastwood, the actor, was looking at retirement.

"You Take it From Here, Kid" Eastwood hands off the stunt-work and takes the desk-job.

Unforgiven (1992) I remember sitting in the theater watching "Unforgiven," and thinking early on that it was a special movie. By the time of the "We all got it comin', kid" scene, it was apparent that it a classic, not only a classic western, but a classic movie.

Reformed gun-fighter
William Munny (Eastwood) isn't making a go of it. His wife, who'd inspired him to stop drinking and start farming, died and left him with two kids he can't support. When he hears of a $1000 reward put up by a group of prostitutes for the disfiguring of one of their own in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, he resists returning to his murderous ways, but makes the trip with the so-called Schofield Kid (Jaimz Woolvett) and an outlaw-partner from the old days, Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman). The journey will cost them all, and Munny will face down the sadistic sheriff "Little Bill" Daggett (Gene Hackman). When he does, he will fight terror with terror, and disappear into the night.

Eastwood had been holding onto
David Webb People's script for years, waiting for a time when he could make it right. When he released it in 1992, this feminist, violent anti-western (at a time when westerns were "dead" at the box-office) made audiences and critics sit up and take notice. Here is Eastwood calling into question the very myth of the West, its male-dominated romanticism, the Manifest Destiny of carving out a new civilization, but only if you were a man, and not a civilized one, at that. The taming of the west is only done at the point of the lash, used without conscience or hesitation. And it is also Eastwood calling a raspy "bull-shit" on his own intimidating screen persona, pushing it within a blade's edge of ridiculousness, with the last of those room-clearing shoot-outs, but this one is a messy affair of using The Big Threat and a man's inclinations to cowardice.

"Unforgiven" garnered
Eastwood his first Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.** Hard to argue with that, and hard to ignore. He also composed the soft elegaic theme that bookends the film. Eastwood has said that it would be his last western, and he has made good on that statement. Nothing more to say, really. "Unforgiven" is dedicated to directors Sergio Leone and Don Siegel.

A Perfect World (1993) A minor film written by
John Lee Hancock, but given a higher profile as it was Eastwood's first movie since "Unforgiven," and it featured box office star Kevin Costner. He plays one of two escaped felons pursued by Texas Rangers, represented by Eastwood and a criminologist played by Laura Dern. Early in the proceedings, Costner's "Butch" Haynes grabs an 8 year old boy (T.J. Lowther) as a hostage and the two form a bond as they're two kids robbed of childhoods: the boy, Phillip Perry is being raised by his strict Jehovah's Witness mother, and Haynes by his life in prison. For the boy, it's his first taste of a kind of freedom, which Haynes is only too happy to provide, but also begins to care for the child's welfare. There is some Costner grand-standing, but the scenes between him and the boy are sensitively allowed to grow into something approximating a family, as the boy learns to be a kid and the criminal to be responsible. Meanwhile, Eastwood's Ranger has to deal with gung-ho searchers and the press, making everybody look a little ineffectual.

The Bridges of Madison County (1995) Something of a miracle, really. Eastwood and scenarist
Richard LaGravenese manage to take Robert James Waller's narcistically soppy best-seller and turn it into a good movie. First off, they concentrate on the kids and their shock and consternation that Mom had the temerity (and the bad taste!) to have an affair, which provides good moments of comedy and perspective. Then, Eastwood had the good sense to cast Meryl Streep in the woman's role: her Italian Iowan house-wife is ungainly and goose-like with an earthy Anna Magnani quality, and Eastwood, looking scraggly and snaggle-toothed, brings something to his wolfish photographer role he never before attempted—casualness. And Eastwood's light directorial touch and appreciation of Streep's gifts come through in every frame. The book is garbage. The movie made from it is astoundingly good and heartfelt.

The two lovers separate for the last time, through ever-increasing layers of transparent glass and rain. Eastwood displaying sentimentality and cruelty simultaneously, while Streep must endure her inner life in the context of her reponsibilities. Eastwood wrote the music for the scene as well. Amazing work, this.

Absolute Power (1997) Retiring thief Luther Whitney(Eastwood) has good luck mostly, but then he knocks over a high-society place that, it turns out, belongs to the mistress of the President of the United States (Gene Hackman), and he witnesses a drunken brawl that turns into murder at President Allen Richmond's hands. The script (by William Goldman, coming out before knowledge of Bill Clinton's White House infidelities) speaks of privilege and entitlement and the moral vacuum of Washington, D.C., which is the only thing making the story rise above its pulpish origins as a cat-and-mouse chase between one wiley thief and the entire United States government (personified by agents Scott Glenn, Dennis Haysbert and Ed Harris and Chief of Staff Judy Davis). The coffee-counter discussion between Eastwood and Harris is one of those scenes where two actors have a good time sizing each other up while filming. Early appearance by Laura Linney as Whitney's daughter, an attorney, who ends up as bait for both sides. Eastwood would use her again.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (1997) Eastwood takes on another best-seller, this time chronicling the Jim Williams trials in Savannah, Georgia, with another script by John Lee Hancock. The cast is colorful (with some of the actual denizens playing themselves), as John Cusack plays a character like author John Berendt, who befriends and becomes witness to a society-page murder that rocks the entire town. At the swanky traditional ball of Williams (Kevin Spacey), the bon vivant's latest boy-toy (Jude Law) shows up not as the life of the party, but "The Death." The town becomes divided, as sides are taken and a series of decidedly unconventional trials (four of them, in fact, for the very same murder) take place. It's a juicy story, though a bit convoluted, and Eastwood clearly relishes the quirky characters (especially The Lady Chablis) more than the minutiae of the story. The film also stars Jack Thompson, Irma P. Hall, Kim Hunter, Geoffrey Lewis and Eastwood's daughter, Allison. It is the first film since "Bird" that Eastwood does not appear in. Full review here.

True Crime
(1999) Eastwood tells two parallel stories along a single time-line: one, of the last day of a death-row inmate (Isaiah Washington) and the preparations he and the state must make in the 24 hours before his execution, and the other, of the crusty reporter-in-recovery (Eastwood) who follows his instincts that the guy is innocent. But he has until 12:01 am to prove it. Despite the manipulation of the set-up, it does turn into a nail-biter, as it becomes readily apparent that in the count-down to the inmate's zero-hour, the concerns of the state—even the protestors outside—have nothing to do with the man's innocence. Everyone is focused on the minutiae of ritual and protocol, in their own manacled lock-step with the Dead Man Walking. The film is loaded with great actors given "bits"—Eastwood gives James Woods a lot of latitude to stretch and their scenes together are a loopy highlight. But, also on hand are Diane Venora, Frances Fisher (and Eastwood's daughter by her), Denis Learyperfecting his slow burn, Bernard Hill, Michael McKean, the great Michael Jeter and cameos by William Windom and Lucy "Alexis" Liu.

Space Cowboys (2000) One wonders what drove Eastwood to take on this project (probably inspired by grounded "Original 7" astronaut Deke Slayton finally making it into space aboard a joint Russian U.S. space-flight and John Glenn's flight at age 77) with fellow Korean War vet James Garner, new kids Donald Sutherland and James Cromwell, and youngsters Tommy Lee Jones, William Devane, and Marcia Gay Harden (look fast enough and you can see Jon Hamm—this was his first movie). *** A Russian space weapon has gone rogue in orbit, and it's up to four washed out test-pilots (who are well past their expiration date) to secretly fix the problem quickly and quietly before the shitski hits the fan. A lot of the effects work is extraordinarily complicated, with a lot of elaborate CGI work by ILM and Wonderworks ("Mythbusters" Adam Savage built some of the models)—the actors are on wires before a green-screen, but it's a bit of a throw-away movie, a "Kelly's Heroes" in orbit, except for a final image that still haunts to this day. In a flash-back sequence, Eastwood is portrayed by Britisher Toby Stephens (son of Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens), who nails Eastwood's snarl perfectly.

Blood Work(2002) Pulp-thriller featuring Eastwood as an FBI profiler who suffers a near fatal heart attack chasing down a serial killer ("The Code Killer"). Years later and two months in recovery from a heart transplant, he's approached to crack a cold case—the murder of the woman whose heart is beating in his chest.

Hey, no pressure.

It's a minor paperback thriller by
Michael Connolly turned into a minor mystery film—it has one of those clever little puzzle clues that lets you know who the killer is— but Eastwood fills it full of good character actors like Paul Rodriguez as the detective most irritated with Eastwood's meddling, Anjelica Huston as his hand-wringing oncologist and Jeff Daniels as his marina neighbor who serves as the sounding board for all the exposition about serial killers. Still, the heart issues are a neat little gambit to keep the "mature" Eastwood from having to do a lot of stunts. Poor Jeff Daniels gets the brunt of it. Diverting, but a bit anemic.

Mystic River (2003) Dennis Lehane's brutal examination of revenge-at-all-costs makes a compelling film about three boy-hood friends (Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon) for whom life makes uneasy paths. The film is positively searing, so much so that I still have friends who despise the movie and its subject matter.**** As the subject is the vulnerability of children in a predatory society, it's hard to blame them. Boston hood Jimmy Markum (Penn) has his world turned upside down when his daughter is murdered, and the investigators (Bacon and Laurence Fishburne) can't seem to find the killer. As the cops continue their investigation, Markum begins to suspect his friend Dave Boyle (Robbins), who is still marked by a childhood kidnapping and brutalization by pedophiles, and for whom the attack on Jimmy's daughter re-opens old wounds, creating doubts in the mind of his weak-willed wife (Marcia Gay Harden), while Jimmy's wife (an extraordinary Laura Linney) has her own issues. Penn has one scene of grief that is alarming in its theatricality, but then his performance settles down into an internal seething, cold and calculating. Both he and Robbins won Oscars for their work and Harden was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (and Linney should have if not for the brevity of her part). The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Eastwood for best director; its the first film for which he wrote the entire score—it's a bit bombastic, but then, so are some of the performances. The final shots are chilling as the principals silently acknowledge how they are locked into their roles.

"Piano Blues" (Episode of "Martin Scorsese Presents: The Blues," 2003) Eastwood gives himself the easiest job of the Scorsese-produced study of the Blues form. The director merely sets up shop at the Clint Eastwood scoring stage (at Warner Brothers Studios) and sits on the piano bench with some legendary blues keyboardists (like Ray Charles and Dave Brubeck) and just shakes his head and smiles. Once they stop playing, Eastwood asks some pretty pointed questions, both as a long-time devotee and a geeky fan, but mostly he just sits and watches and beams ...and stays out of the way of the music. For all the pyrotechnics of the other episodes of the series that took away from the Art it was examining, the fan from his earliest days as a teenager, might've had the right idea.

Million Dollar Baby (2004) F.X. Toole's stories of desperate people risking their lives, literally trying to fight their way to rise above it, gets its first portrayal on-screen with this multi-Oscar award winner (including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress Hilary Swank—her second—and Best Supporting Actor Morgan Freeman—his second—Eastwood was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Jamie Foxx for "Ray," quite understandably). It received a lot of criticism for its surprising story, which critics were generally pretty good about not revealing. But, really, how can you criticize something that feels original enough to hit you so hard it knocks the air out of you? A tough movie that doesn't shadow box around its subject and subverts the standard sports "feel good" cliches, post-"Rocky," "Million Dollar Baby" was the underdog film no one wanted to make, and ended up taking the gold. Maybe it is a "feel good" story, after all.

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) Full review here. Not so much the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima (although that is extensively portrayed), as the fall-out from that battle and its iconic and inspirational record of the Marines raising the flag (actually the second American flag) on Mt. Suribachi. Ira Hayes' story had been told before (in Delbert Mann's "The Outsider"), but Eastwood completes the tale of the other surviving soldiers who were pulled out of service to tour the country as press-agents for the war and sell war-bonds for the financially strapped effort. At the time of the Iraq War, the trading on dewey-eyed patriotism (best seen through distorting tears in one's eyes) to "sell" a prolonged fight seemed especially pointed, and showed that not much changes in the duplicity of governments and their ability to manipulate, not even in the manufactured rocket's red glare of "A Good War."

Flags of Our Fathers was roundly criticized by Spike Lee for not showing the black soldiers fighting on Iwo Jima, thereby proving 1) he hadn't seen the movie and 2) he was missing the point. Lee was oddly silent on the issue for Eastwood's next movie that came out only a few months later.

Letters from Iwo Jima (aka 硫黄島からの手紙) (2006) During the production of Flags of Our Fathers, Eastwood suddenly had the urge to tell the story of the battle from the other side—a somewhat radical idea for an American production company—and based the story on "'Gyokusai sōshikikan' no etegami" ("Pictures Letters from the Commander-in-Chief") the collected letters home from General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, telling the main story-line from his perspective (portrayed by Ken Watanabe), but also presenting back-stories for most of the main characters. Presented almost entirely in Japanese, with a strictly Japanese cast, it won numerous Best Film in a Foreign Language Awards, and was No. 1 at the Japanese Box Office for five weeks, a testament to its attention to detail. It did far better in international markets than in the States, but it topped many critics' lists of that year. It's a great film, detailing the desperation of soldiers in a "must-win" battle. Full review here.

Changeling (2008) As per its title, Changeling starts as one thing and turns into another. The story of a single mother (Angelina Jolie) in 1920's Los Angeles, whose son goes missing, becomes a cause celebre and, to her horror, finds that the Los Angeles police have conspired to use her as a PR tool by bringing her a kid, any kid, to make it look like they've solved the case. When she protests, the cops try to silence her by locking her in a mental institution. And then, it gets very interesting. Eastwood's feminist take on oppression and fighting authority also contains a forgotten incident so horrific, an entire California town changed its name to avoid being tarred with it. Jolie is great in this, at her tigerish best, and John Malkovich is kept under proper restraint, but it's the secondary characters in the drama who give the most amazing performances. Moody and harsh, it's the best of Eastwood's pulp-textured films. Full review here.

Gran Torino (2008) I talked about this one in the first part of this series. Trashed by many critics as being racist and too simplistic, this is Eastwood's obvious final bow to his audience, featuring the perfect period to his long acting career. Racist? Right, he said sarcastically through his gritted teeth. Eastwood fills the picture with Hmong non-actors merely for their authenticity, and manages to get better performances than most directors combing the neighborhoods for "color." His Walt Kowalski is over the top, but Walt Kowalski is all bluff, like Will Munny at the end of Unforgivenhe talks real big and real scary, and that does the trick 95% of the time. That last 5% is the tough nut, though, and Kowalski, with enough reason to make a sacrifice, faces down a semi-circle of guns as so many Eastwood characters have in the past. He still manages to come out triumphant with his goals met, but there's no place for a post-carnage glib quip ironic sign-off for Eastwood's acting career. Full review here.

Invictus (2009) A rare Eastwood "prestige" project, made as a vehicle for friend Morgan Freeman to fulfill a personal goal of playing Nelson Mandela. Full review here. But two things have occurred to me since the movie premiered: 1) It would appear to be another in the "whitey-saves-the-day" series of movies (like, say "Avatar"), except that it's a true story and that that is the point. It's a united effort among the races, rugby players, fans and bodyguards, to put differences aside for a common goal; 2) is that Eastwood's direction of the rugby match is fascinating, as it's not a fast-moving game, but a slow, inexorable pile-on of players pushing each other slowly, inexorably to their goals. Nice metaphor, that. And I still contend that Eastwood's interest is a bit more with the story of Mandela's bodyguards, who previously had been political enemies, and form a bond watching Mandela's back...and each other's.

Hereafter (2010) Full review here.  Okay, if you're going to take a broad overview of Eastwood's career, this might be the last movie you'd expect him to make.  But the 80 year old director of such films as Breezy and The Bridges of Madison County seems like a natural fit for a story of faith, hope and charity despite the constant presence—and reminder—of Death.  Peter Morgan's precise multi-lingual script is a triangular story of Fates waiting to mingle.  That these people have been touched by the near-occassion of death, each subconsciously fulfilling mutual needs for a satisfying ending.  Still, the movie's a bit of a tease, what with its frightfully effective opening sequence depicting a killer tsunami, Matt Damon's reluctant psychic who just hates talking to the dead, and enticing glimpses into The White Light.  But, it is not death that Hereafter is most concerned with, it is Life, and living a good one, knowing it will end.  It is a story of turning your back on "The Undiscovered Country" to appreciate what you know...and appreciate that there is just as much unknown here, as there.  Deceptively simple, but very, very deep.

Up next: J. Edgar starring Leonardo DeCaprio, as the FBI director-for-life—and written by Milk's Dustin Lance Black, so it might be a bit different.  It sounds like one of Oliver Stone's "lifetime-in-two-hours" schmeer movies. 

* It did, initially. First, the Army refused co-operation, then the Marines stepped in. But upon seeing a first cut of the film, withdrew their support.

** well as a well-deserved and long overdue second Oscar for Best Supporting Performance to Gene Hackman who, eying retirement from acting, initially rejected the part, thinking the movie too violent. He would start a long string of overlooked performers who would win awards in Eastwood movies, including Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. But Hackman is terrific in this role. One line has always stood out for me. Staring up at the barrel of Munny's rifle pointed at his neck, Dagget blurts out: "I don't deserve this... to die like this. I was building a house." Which is why I chuckle every time I hear Hackman deliver the Lowe's Home Improvement tag-line—"Let's build something together."

*** The initial team of oldster astronauts was Eastwood, Jones, Sean Connery (in the Sutherland role) and Jack Nicholson (in the Garner part). That would have been...wild.

**** They aren't alone. Premiere Magazine (RIP) named "Mystic River" one of its "20 Most Overrated Movies of All Time."

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